How to Read a Chord Diagram in Under 10 Minutes

Today, we’ll learn how to read a chord diagram.

Here’s the kicker:

It’s easy! Hence, it will only take a few minutes.

Let’s go!

chord diagram

When looking for chords, there are different notations you may encounter. Plus, there are also other ways to play one chord.

Still, the most common one would be a chord diagram.

Chord Symbols

The chord symbols are like an acronym for the notes that make up a chord. 

That’s a really huge help in the world of music. 

For example:

Instead of saying C E G or 1 3 5, you could simply say C major chord, which is more straightforward.

I’m pretty sure you’ve already faced some symbols used in naming chords that may seem odd. 

“What is this supposed to be?” 

Well, good news:

Here are the chord symbols and what they mean:

No symbol, M or Maj

These symbols are referred to as a major. 

basic guitar chord - C

In music theory, major chords consist of a root note, a major third just above the root note, and a perfect fifth. 

With just these three notes, they are also called a major triad.

May occasionally use this symbol (Δ).

m, or min

Cm chord

This means a minor of “this” chord. 

The only difference between a major triad and a minor triad is the 2nd note is flattened, or a minor third.

So, if a major chord is C E G, the minor chord is C Eb G.

Sometimes, this symbol (-) might be used for a minor chord or simply a lowercase (this is rare). 

Aug

Caug chord

This is cited as an augmented triad.

In this triad, the perfect fifth would be “augmented” or raised by a half note, so there’s like 2 major thirds.

May sometimes use the symbol (+).

Dim

Cdim chord

Singled out as a diminished (o) chord.

It consists of 2 minor thirds.

In other words, it’s like a minor triad but, instead of a perfect fifth note, it would be a lowered fifth.

Inversion (/)

This refers to playing a chord with an inverted chord. 

By that, it means merely swapping the lowest note (the root note) played with some other note.

Let’s use the F/C chord as an example:

F Partial Chord

Rather than F note as the root, it uses C instead, but it’s still an F chord.

Chord Diagrams

chord details with guitar
Representation of a chord diagram with a guitar.

A chord diagram is a portrayal of a part of the guitar’s neck, which shows where to put your finger(s) to play a chord. 

Here’s the deal:

The main thing you need to know is the placing of fingersthe strings and fret numbers.

chord diagram details
Example of a chord diagram.

Now:

When looking at a chord diagram, you should imagine that its the neck of the guitar facing you in an upright position (as shown in the first picture above).

A chord diagram mainly consists of a chord name, frets, strings, and fingers’ placement.

Let’s start with the chord name.

Chord names may sometimes be on top or on the bottom as long as it’s visible. This tells you what chord the given shape is.

Next is the frets:

Get this:

Frets actually have inconsistent definitions around the internet.

Let’s clear this up:

Frets are actually the lines or (fret bars as I would say). This is the technical CORRECT definition.

But!

When people say “press on the first fret,” it will be the space before the first fret (bar or line).

Fret Numbers

Here’s the thing:

Fret numbers are not always shown in chord diagrams.

IF it is not there, most of the time, it’ll start with the first fret.

The nut is also a great way to figure out which frets to play the chord.

Not all the chord diagrams show the nut, but if it is there, for sure, the chord diagram starts at fret 0.

Otherwise, it starts with whichever fret is specified.

Strings

Get this:

Strings are actually numbered backward. 

It is 6 to 1, 6 as the thickest string and 1 as the thinnest string from left to right.

Frets and Strings
Guitar frets, string notes & numbers. E(6) as the thickest string and e(1) as the thinnest string.

Now:

Either on top or on the bottom of the diagram, you’ll see Xs, Os, and maybe some numbers aligned to each string.

If the string is marked as X, it means, “don’t play this string (mute).” 

Open string (O), on the other hand, means to play the string (without pressing on any fret).

If you see numbers, it suggests which fingers to use.

Placement of Fingers

Hand diagram
T (thumb), 1 (index finger), 2 (middle finger), 3 (ring finger), 4 (pinky)

The dots you can see by the strings and frets are where you have to place or press your fingers.

On chord diagrams around the internet, the placement of fingers is not all the same. 

Sometimes it can be seen with the open/mute strings displayed as numbers.

Another version would be numbers placed within dots (like the illustration above). 

These numbers suggest as to which fingers to use when fretting.

Let’s use Em as an Example

basic guitar chord - Em

Since we can see the nut, it is safe to assume that the first fret in this diagram is, in fact, the first fret of the guitar. 

Although it has been given in this diagram, so we don’t need to worry about that.

This diagram shows some open strings: 6th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings. 

Which implies that we don’t need to press those strings.

If you’ve noticed, there are 2 dots in the second fret. 

The first dot is in the 5th string with the number 2, which suggests using your index finger to press the 5th string. 

And the second dot is in the 4th string having the number 3 on it, suggesting to use the middle finger to press the 5th string.

There are actually Multiple Ways to Play a Guitar Chord

Note

The fingers to use is only a SUGGESTION for every chord diagram.

Why?

Looking at the Em chord, we can actually use our index (1) and middle finger (2) or maybe ring finger (3) and pinky (4) to play this chord, right?

BUT, these suggestions in chord diagrams happen to be better because of specific reasons.

First:

It is much easier to do it this way.

I mean, you’re not gonna use your pinky (4 ) to fret the 5th string if you have an available finger that’s much comfortable to use, right?

Second:

When shifting from chord to chord, this may be the best shape to be in.

For example:

Em to E (complicated version)

When shifting from Em to E using index (1) and middle (2), you actually have to change the whole shape by moving your index to the 1st fret, 3rd string.

Then, moving the middle (2) one string up, and adding the middle (3) to the 4th string, 2nd fret.

Much more complicated, right?

Now:

Let’s use these other chord diagrams.

Em to E

When shifting from Em to E, you only have to add your index finger to the 1st fret, the 3rd string, which is a lot easier and faster!

Note

Em to E is just an example. This chord progression is just weird in the real world.

This all depends on which you’re more comfortable with, and whichever is faster to shift to the next chord you’re going to play.

Final Words of Advice

So, with that said:

You can go on your guitar journey!

Also:

When looking for a tutorial on youtube, learning this will also help you.

Why?

At times, when they’re teaching chords, they usually say stuff like, “index finger in 2nd fret 5th string”. 

At least, with the things I’ve taught you, you’ll have it easy.

Remember that the numbers in fingers’ placement are just SUGGESTIONS.

You can use other fingers, whichever is much comfortable and whichever is gonna be much more efficient when shifting to another chord.

What’s the next step? Learn the 10 Essential Chords for Beginners!

Here are some articles that may help you:

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